San Francisco, the sparkling city by the bay, turned out to be everything I’d read about and more. I’ve passed through this city a half dozen times and never really taken the time to check it out. My husband grew up in nearby Berkeley and wanted to take some time to explore his roots and show me around. It turned out to be a real treat for me!
San Francisco has a fascinating history. In 1848 the city’s population increased 25-fold in a single year when the 49ers started arriving in search of gold. By the 1880’s, the city started to develop a reputation as a hub for the arts when creative icons like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson moved here. In the 1950’s Beat writers came and hosted readings and bop concerts in North Beach. This was followed by legendary rock bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in the 1960’s. These bands were instrumental in bringing thousands of hippies to Haight-Ashbury. Today, San Francisco is surrounded by the high-tech ingenuity that will drive this country for a long time to come. It seems as though this city has been a center stage and in the forefront of important changes in this country for a very long time.
After we arrived at the airport, we rode the BART train to Fisherman’s Wharf, hopped on the Cable Car and rode it to our hotel at the top of Nob Hill. We actually considered walking up the hill, but after a brief cursory look at the steepness of the sidewalk, I said “no way.” Besides, I thought it was unthinkable to visit San Francisco without riding the cable car. The fascinating underground cable system was invented in 1873 and covers a ten-mile cross section of downtown San Francisco. The cars travel continuously at a speed of nine and a half miles an hour. The ride in itself is pure fun and immensely entertaining.
The cable car dropped us off in front of our home base, the historic Mark Hopkins Hotel. Our room on the 19th floor had an old-fashioned style and extraordinary views of the city. When the clouds rolled in we felt like we were perched in our private tree-house in the sky. The city was ours and we walked everywhere from Nob Hill. We explored China Town, North Beach and Union Square. We set up a free guided walking tour through the website www.sfcityguides.org.
After settling in at our hotel, we walked to The House of Prime Rib on Van Ness Avenue for dinner. I don’t eat meat often, but I knew this place was a big part of the San Francisco establishment and I wanted to experience it. Many of the waiters had worked here for over twenty years and thrilled us with colorful, old-time stories. We were served at our table from giant steam warmers. This restaurant lived up to its reputation. Fabulous!
After dinner, we hopped in a cab and went to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a play that has been a San Francisco institution since debuting in the mid 1970’s. Beach Blanket Babylon lampoons celebrities and current events and is constantly rewritten to remain fresh. The sheer wit of the costume design and raw talent of the performers had us laughing the entire evening. Some of the hats were so big, it’s a miracle the performers didn’t collapse underneath them.
The Golden Gate Bridge is without doubt one of the most beautiful in the world with its majestic backdrop, tremendous towers and giant sweeping cables. Riding a bike across the bridge had long been a dream of mine. After a good night’s sleep, we took a brisk walk to Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals & Tours on Hyde Street. The helpful woman behind the counter suggested we rent a “pedal-assisted” bike with a battery pack that was used for boosting the power of the bike.
I had no idea what she was talking about, but soon agreed when she explained that this type of bicycle would climb hills much easier than a normal bike. It felt like a strong wind was pushing us along while riding. We rode five hours straight without getting tired. We even went to Sausalito and caught the ferry back to the city from there. Both of us felt it would have not been possible to cover so many miles without our “pedal-assisted” bikes. We were thrilled with ourselves and our bikes!
My husband, a yoga buff, wanted to spend some time studying yoga at Fort Mason Center. The center is a complex of old wharves and tile-roof warehouses once a major military embarkation point. I had never heard of this place before, but soon realized it is now the cultural heart of avant-garde San Francisco. All kinds of non-profit organizations and arts and crafts businesses have set up shop here and many offer classes in theater, dance, creative writing, painting, weaving, sculpture and music. Greenpeace even has offices here.
Exploring Chinatown was high on our priority list. Chinatown feels like its own little city and started to develop by 1851 when 25,000 Chinese immigrants were working as laborers in the gold mines and railroads located close to San Francisco. For the most part the migrants were fleeing from famine and the Opium Wars in their country. Today Chinatown bustles with a population of over 80,000.
There are three Buddhist and Taoist Temples. The streets are lined with grocers, fishmongers, tea sellers, herbalists, noodle parlors and restaurants. I was told very few Chinese people own refrigerators because they buy fresh produce daily.
Before we left San Francisco, I wanted to find out more about the 1906 fire that ravaged the city for three days. I found out during a city bus tour that it was caused by a 13-second earthquake. Since the main gas and water lines were ruptured during the earthquake, no water was available to put out the fires caused by exploding gas lines. The fire was unstoppable until the firefighters made the difficult decision to blow up the buildings on Van Ness Street to make a fire-break. This was the only way to stop the fire and it worked! I can only imagine how many classic historical buildings were lost during this tragic incident.
Some people say San Francisco is “a city that invites the heart to come to life… an experiment in living.” After spending time in this city, I couldn’t agree more.
IMPORTANT CONTACT INFORMATION
San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau:
Call (415) 974-6900,
or contact: www.sfcvb.org
San Francisco Mark Hopkins Hotel: Call (415) 392-3434, or contact: www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer residing in San Diego, CA